On the Road: Life Lived With Unemployment
by Paul Roitman Bardack
One day, I was
running a public policy
research center that focused
on how American workers,
workers, can be retrained
through distance learning.
The next day, I found myself unemployed.
This was emotionally devastating. I had
been unemployed only a few years earlier.
Was job uncertainty to be the pattern for
the rest of my life? For my wife, however,
things were far more nuanced. Certainly,
unemployment was a bad thing financially;
and the fact that I was an emotional wreck
made things far, far worse. On the other
hand, Eti, the daughter of two Holocaust
survivors, knew that there were far worse
losses a person could suffer.
So, several days into my unemployment,
Eti said, “We have to turn your attitude
around. We’ve always dreamed about taking
the trip of a lifetime. I have the summer
off. You don’t have a job. Let’s sell our house
and use the proceeds to have the best summer
of our lives. And we’ll bring a laptop with
us, so you can look for work while we’re away.”
And so we did.
“Simplify, simplify,” Thoreau wrote
beside Walden Pond. Those words had a
powerful impact on us.
So, beginning in March, needing to get
the house ready for sale, we began to simplify
our lives. For Eti, it was easy; if it wasn’t
used almost daily, it was unneeded. For me,
still feeling sorry for myself, divesting myself
of our things simply added to the sense of
loss. Some two thousand books collected over
the past 40 years? Gone. Furniture? Gone.
The artwork? Gone. Surplus pots, pans and
dishes? Gone. The clothing we rarely wear?
Gone. And on and on and on.
And then a funny thing happened. The
more we gave to charitable organizations
or to friends or acquaintances in need, the
better we started to feel about ourselves. Jettisoning
our possessions began to take on
a life of its own, a life we felt increasingly
good about. And I, in particular, started
to feel less sorry about being unemployed.
How could I be suffering economically if we
have so much to give away? It made no sense.
And so the shock of unemployment began
to give way to a much greater focus on the
assets that we did have: each other, our family,
friends, and a smaller array of possessions
that we actually use. We were, as psychologists
say, increasingly coming to a good
place both emotionally and mentally.
And then we caught two exceptionally
lucky breaks. The first was that we were able
to sell our house quickly, and at a good price.
But where could we move that would be affordable? That’s where the second break
Eti’s dad owned a house that he had been
trying to sell for years, but the local real estate
market was tanking. The house wouldn’t
sell so he rented it to a succession of tenants,
and the most recent announced they had to
leave immediately. And so it was that Eti’s
dad suggested that we come and live temporarily
in the house he owned, provided
we try to make the place look better for sale.
We quickly said yes!
So, armed with the proceeds of the sale
of our house, a decluttered physical and
mental landscape, and the knowledge that
we would have a place to which we could
return, we tried to turn our lemon into
lemonade by embarking on our three month
trip of a lifetime. (But first, we got permission
from Eti’s dad to allow friends of ours,
who otherwise would have been homeless,
to stay in his house while they were getting
back on their feet and we were away.)
And so the adventure began. With few
exceptions, on any given day we hadn’t a
clue where we would be the following day.
We started our journey in British Columbia,
where we went to work shoveling horse
manure out of stables – and to our surprise
loved every minute of it. We did a lot of
hiking, including to a folk concert that seemed
to have attracted every aging hippie in Canada.
From there, we went to Seattle, to visit our
son and to continue our hiking adventures.
I even played some of my Native American
flutes in a Native American powwow.
Next, we studied Jewish texts with the
ultra-Orthodox community of Lakewood,
New Jersey. Why? Well, why not? After staying
with friends and family in Connecticut
and Massachusetts, we spent several weeks
living in a small home atop a mountain in
the extreme northeast corner of New Hampshire:
no email, no internet, no telephone.
On any given day we were far more likely
to see moose and bears than other people.
Then – stops in Philadelphia, New York City,
and Columbus. We visited our grandson
in Kentucky. We rescued endangered animals
in rural Tennessee. We went boating in
Maine. We discovered the shul in Bethlehem,
New Hampshire, where my grandfather
had been a cantor 70 years ago. We
prepared food at our leisure and savored what
we prepared. We watched the Perseid meteor
shower from a mountain summit. We learned
how to make moonshine whiskey.
In each place we visited, we made time to
engage in job searches, in some sort of
local social action, and in Jewish study.
In the fall we returned to our temporary
home. Eti went back to teaching and
I landed some paid consulting work and
developed some promising job leads.
No, I do not wish to share social policy
thoughts regarding unemployment and its
impacts. The first few months of unemployment
found us having a far more solid
material cushion then most other unemployed
Americans do. We had stronger family
support and solid educational and
professional networks. We were lucky, and
we know it. But I can generalize about our
experience in spiritual terms.
Our months on the road were the most
profoundly, intensely, and consistently spiritually
elevated of our lives. They started
with despair and anger at the loss of a job,
the unwanted sale of a home, and the divestment
of most of our material possessions.
They ended when we learned to take joy
and what we hope will be lasting wisdom
from that very experience. The loss became
a gain. The sadness became gladness. Time
lost from work became time found for parenting
and for strengthening our marriage.
For months, we very keenly and increasingly
felt God’s presence. We discovered that
a person’s physical journey is also a spiritual
journey. We learned that days that begin
with the question of how I want to live
my life today, and why usually are a lot more
rewarding than days that don’t begin with
that question. And we also learned that
the most effective way to end our own pain
is to try to heal someone else’s.
We now know that it’s not the quality
or quantity of our possessions that defines
a life. It’s the quality and quantity of true
stories that we can tell others. And, finally,
we also learned that driving on the backstreets
with the top down at 35 miles per
hour yields far better stories than does
driving on an interstate with the top up
Paul Roitman Bardack is past president of Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington, DC.